In the World
Today, as I was flipping through my Liturgy of the Hours the book opened at the “Letter to Diognetus” which was the second text in the Office of Readings from a while ago. The text is one of my favorites because it makes an important point about how Christians are to be identified in the world.
Devout members of certain faiths can be recognized by their clothing. Most Sikh men wear a turban while Muslim women wear the hijab and Jewish men wear the skullcap. Some religious communities tend to concentrate in certain parts of a city. A number of faith groups have dietary restrictions such as the Jewish and Muslim prohibition against eating pork. These traditions establish a strong sense of identity among the members of a particular faith community.
Christians tend not to live in the world in this way. Some groups like the Amish do dress differently from the rest of society and Catholic religious men and women may wear a habit, but the appearance of most Christians is indistinguishable from their neighbors. Most Christians choose their residence without considering whether their fellow congregants live. With the exception of Catholics who abstain from eating meat on Fridays, the diets of Christians are the same as the rest of the community. This lack of external signs mean Christians must establish their identity in some other manner.
As the Letter indicates, one way involves their attitude towards the world. As citizens, Christians pay taxes, vote in elections and participate in public life like their neighbors. Although they may feel a certain attraction to their city, region or country it is tempered by the knowledge their ultimate loyalty is to their faith. This means they are visitors in their community because their true homeland is heaven. It also means any place can be their home on earth for the Church is truly catholic (universal).
One consequence of this attitude is they are often misunderstood which can lead to persecution. Our faith tells us certain things are wrong. Even when a government which enjoys the support of a majority of the citizens in a community passes a bad law, Christians see it as a bad law which they will oppose. Similarly, Christians believe there are some non-negotiable truths. In our multicultural society some groups (humanists or members of other religious groups) may be offended by public displays of Christian faith. Yet, Jesus told his followers to make disciples of all nations (although without resorting to coercion). Finally, there are certain activities such as prostitution which have become socially acceptable (and therefore legal) which are condemned by Christians.
One way in which Christian identity can be firmly established within our society is the way in which believers respond to this situation. In a world which values displays of power, non-violent resistance sets Christians apart from their neighbors. When others are attracted to individuals who flaunt their wealth, those who live a moderate lifestyle stand out. Within a society which places no limits on the pursuit of sexual pleasure, Christians who restain their impulses get noticed. While many within our world may respond to such an identity with ridicule, they have noticed the difference. A seed may have been planted.
Those in ordained ministry or are undergoing formation for it understand the challenge of following St. Paul’s teaching “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2). It is so easy for clergy to simply fit in by developing the attitudes found in the world. Besides the challenge of establishing our Christian identity as individuals, the greater challenge is helping our people to do so. The Letter to Diognetius does not make pleasant reading. Yet, the point it makes is timeless. Although modern society differs greatly from the world in which the Letter was written, the challenge of living out our Christian faith has changed little. The external signs of our identity are not clothes, residence or diet but attitudes. They can be the most difficult things to communicate but also the most powerful.
If you can’t tell I am a Christian by my clothes, perhaps I have a bigger problem than my wardrobe.